Mary and Max (2009)

2018 #202
Adam Elliot | 92 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | Australia / English & Yiddish | 12

Mary and Max

I heard about Mary and Max around when it first came out. I can’t remember the context anymore, but it must’ve been positive because I’ve been meaning to watch it ever since; a desire only reiterated by its surprisingly firm placement on IMDb’s Top 250 (at time of writing, it’s ranked 176th). Nine years since said initial release (nine years?! Where does time go?!), I finally got round to, er, acquiring it, only for it to then pop up on Prime Video. C’est la vie, I guess.

Anyway, it’s about two very different and geographically distant, but similarly lonely, individuals who come into contact by the magic of mail. Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced initially by Bethany Whitmore and later by Toni Collette) is a little girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, who randomly selects a name in an address book at the post office and sends that person a letter. That person turns out to be Max Horowitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, unrecognisably, at least to me), a middle-aged obese New Yorker with mental health problems. He replies, and an unlikely, long-lasting pen-pal relationship is born.

The film labels itself as being based on a true story, but writer-director Adam Elliot has said (according to IMDb) that Max was inspired by “a pen-friend in New York who I’ve been writing to for over twenty years.” So, less “based on a true story” and more “very loosely inspired by a true story” — I mean, at least half the narrative (all the shit Mary goes through) is completely fictional. Does that matter? Maybe not… but also, kinda. While the film presents a gloomy, issue-heavy take on life, it also has a whimsical side, and that “true story” claim feels like it’s trying to justify both how grim things get and how fantastical they sometimes are, too. The fact it isn’t true — that it is, at least in part, just the product of the director’s kooky imagination — therefore feels like a bit of a con, at least to me.

Crying on crayon

Still, that doesn’t mean Mary and Max is without merit. It has an empathy for people who are disadvantaged and troubled, and for the importance of finding some measure of happiness in life, however small or awkward, that is quite touching. The heavily stylised designs, desaturated colour scheme, and stop-motion animation method suit the material well — as I said, there’s a lot of bleakness here, as both Mary and Max are battered by life, which juxtaposes effectively with the “kids’ picture book” visual aesthetic. That also allows for some flights of fancy which just wouldn’t work if the film were live action. Plus, as with almost any stop-motion movie, it’s an impressive technical achievement (trivia time: there were 133 sets, 212 puppets, and 475 miniature props, including a fully-functional typewriter that took nine weeks to create!)

Mary and Max’s position on a viewer-rated list like the IMDb Top 250 surprises me, because it’s an oddball little film that would seem to appeal primarily to a certain kind of viewer, and probably alienate many others with its unique mix of quirkiness and spirit-crushing realism. It makes for a sometimes uncomfortable experience — perhaps deliberately so — but underneath that lies a fundamental humanity that is, in a way, quite moving.

4 out of 5

Mary and Max is available on Amazon Prime Video UK as of yesterday.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Mission: Impossible III

The Mission Begins

Also Known As: M:i:III

Country: USA, Germany, China & Italy
Language: English
Runtime: 126 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 3rd May 2006 (11 countries)
UK Release: 4th May 2006
US Release: 5th May 2006
Budget: $150 million
Worldwide Gross: $397.85 million

Stars
Tom Cruise (A Few Good Men, Edge of Tomorrow)
Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, The Master)
Ving Rhames (Con Air, Piranha 3D)
Michelle Monaghan (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Source Code)
Billy Crudup (Almost Famous, Watchmen)
Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, John Wick: Chapter 2)

Director
J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

Screenwriters
J.J. Abrams (Armageddon, Super 8)
Alex Kurtzman (The Island, Transformers)
Roberto Orci (The Legend of Zorro, Star Trek)

Based on
Mission: Impossible, a TV series created by Bruce Geller.


The Story
Ethan Hunt and his IMF team must track down ruthless arms dealer Owen Davian before he can get his hands on the Rabbit’s Foot, a potentially catastrophic weapon.

Our Heroes
Ethan Hunt has semi-retired to a life of (to-be-)wedded bliss and training new recruits, until his protégé, Lindsey Farris, goes missing on an undercover op and Ethan is persuaded back into active duty to rescue her. For that he’ll need a team, including his regular partner, hacker Luther Stickell, plus pilot Declan Gormley, and Zhen Lei, whose particular skillset I’m not sure is clarified beyond being kick-ass and looking good in a dress. Back at IMF HQ, there’s also a helping hand from funny British tech whizz Benji Dunn.

Our Villain
Owen Davian is not a man to be messed with — and when Hunt and his team do, Davian is hellbent on revenge. As portrayed by the peerless Philip Seymour Hoffman, he’s the most genuinely threatening villain of the entire series.

Best Supporting Character
The head of the IMF, Theodore Brassel, is a superb turn from Laurence Fishburne — commanding and imposing, but also drily hilarious. It’s a shame they never had him back. Alec Baldwin has taken over basically the same role in Rogue Nation and Fallout, and he’s good, but Fishburne was really good too.

Memorable Quote
“It’s unacceptable that chocolate makes you fat, but I’ve eaten my share and guess what?” — Brassel

Memorable Scene
The IMF team’s unofficial mission to capture Davian from a party in Vatican City, which involves stopping traffic in central Rome, overleaping security walls, blowing up sports cars, and, most fundamentally, switching out Davian for Hunt — wearing one of the series’ trademark masks, natch.

Memorable Music
Nothing against Michael Giacchino’s original score, but there’s no besting Lalo Schifrin’s fantastic main theme.

Truly Special Effect
The movie actually has loads of model work and CGI, as the special features attest, but the vast majority of it is totally invisible — as is the single greatest effects moment. It comes when Hunt puts on a mask of Davian: as he slips the mask over his head, the camera tracks around behind Luther, briefly hiding Hunt from our view — we assume it’s for the sake of an invisible cut to switch Cruise for Hoffman, but no: as the camera emerges out the other side, it’s still Cruise + latex. Only then, as Luther attaches the mask properly, is there a completely unnoticeable transition to the real Hoffman. Not only is it a superb bit of work, but it helps sell the idea that these masks are plausible — we’ve just seen him put one on, so they must be!

Previously on…
Starting out as a ’60s TV series created in the wake of James Bond’s success, Mission: Impossible’s own popularity saw it run for seven seasons into the ’70s, before being revived in the ’80s for two more seasons, and then relaunched as a Tom Cruise film franchise in the ’90s. As this one has “III” in the title, you can probably deduce that it was preceded by two others.

Next time…
Ditching the numbering, the M:I films have continued with Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation, and this week’s new release, Fallout. Already a huge critical success (scoring 97% on Rotten Tomatoes), there’s no reason to think we won’t be seeing more in the future.

Awards
1 Empire Award (Scene of the Year (the bridge attack))
1 Empire Award nomination (Best Thriller)
5 Saturn Award nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actor (Tom Cruise), Supporting Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Director, Special Effects)
3 Teen Choice Awards nominations (Action Adventure, Actor: Drama/Action Adventure (Tom Cruise), Actress: Drama/Action Adventure (Keri Russell))
1 World Stunt Awards nomination (Best High Work)

Verdict

This is where the Mission: Impossible series as we know it today begins, both stylistically (although the series never adopts a house style, the pure individuality of Brian De Palma or John Woo won’t be seen again) and narratively (while most of the plot points from 1 and 2 are never referenced again (bar an Easter egg or two), there’s stuff introduced here that’s still a major part of the series in Fallout). That said, it’s still very much a standalone movie (the series has never become reliant on continuity, though it looks like Fallout may change that somewhat).

And what of it as a film in itself, then? Well, kind of ironically, it has more action than the John Woo movie — there’s set piece after set piece after set piece. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, because they’re almost all phenomenal examples of suspense or action filmmaking. Though, it must be said, a mite too much of it is enabled by green screen, lacking the done-for-real extravagance of the films that follow. And there are a couple of exceptions to that “phenomenal” assessment: the Shanghai skyscraper heist, which feels like they knew the film was going on too long and so what should be a huge section is rushed, with the middle chopped out; and the climax, which has its moments but is rather underpowered, just a runaround in some houses.

That said, the finale does keep the focus on Hunt and his new wife, which is only fitting. This is the series’ most emotional and human film — all the stuff with Ethan and his home life/relationship is absolutely central to the movie; and the villain chooses specifically to mess with both Ethan’s protégé and his missus, making this the most “this time it’s personal” of the Missions. It isn’t even that concerned about its own big threat, making the Rabbit’s Foot the most MacGuffin-y MacGuffin ever. It’s never explained what it is — in fact, that’s even made into a bit of a joke in the penultimate scene. But we get the stakes because they have Benji give a theory about what it could be, so we know its potential. It’s neatly managed so that we believe this thing matters, but we remain focused on the characters instead of “what happens if they use the Rabbit’s Foot?” (Well, some of us do: according to Christopher McQuarrie, the lack of explanation didn’t go down well with test audiences, since when Cruise has taken it to heart that audiences like things to be explained.)

All in all, whenever I watch M:i:III I end up loving it more than I think I will — it’s an incredibly proficient, entertaining action-thriller. That I’d still rank it near the bottom of the franchise says more about the quality of the other instalments than it does the film itself.

The new Mission: Impossible, Fallout, is released in the UK today and in the US on Friday.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

2016 #135
Mike Nichols | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Germany / English & Russian | 15 / R

Charlie Wilson's WarUnlikely stories can make great movies, or at least fun ones, and if this isn’t the former then it’s largely the latter.

It’s about a hard-partying US congressman (Tom Hanks) who suddenly becomes interested in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, so increases support for the rebels by calling in the many favours he’s collected.

Boasting a typically witty script from Aaron Sorkin, and a cast (including Philip Seymour Hoffman) capable of delivering it, it makes a potentially grim topic surprisingly entertaining — which is presumably why acknowledgement of the aftereffects is reduced to one subtle, but chilling, nod to 9/11.

4 out of 5

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

2015 #186
Anton Corbijn | 122 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

John le Carré adaptation starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a German secret intelligence operative who must battle internal politicking while tracking a political refugee who may actually be a terrorist.

A typically complex plot requires the viewer to keep their attention level high. Some find the story a plod, but (one languorous interrogation sequence aside) I thought it relatively brisk, aided by accent-defying performances from Hoffman, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, and Grigoriy Dobrygin as the refugee. Though beware: its level of realism, with real-life levels of compromise and betrayal, doesn’t make for an ultimately cheery or triumphant conclusion.

4 out of 5

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

2015 #127
Francis Lawrence | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

If you’re not au fait with the first two Hunger Games movies, there’s nothing for you here. Why would you want to join a story halfway through anyway?

Even for those of us who are, Mockingjay Part 1 — the first half of a two-part finale that, for my money, plays more like its own standalone movie than most first halves of two-part finales manage (I’m thinking of Deathly Hallows 1 or The Matrix Reloaded here) — throws us in at the deep end, starting a little while after the end of the last film and challenging us to keep up. It’s a little frustrating at times — if you’ve not watched the previous movies into the ground, there are points where you wonder if you’ve forgotten something or just not been told it yet — but ultimately helps make for an engrossing, mature movie.

Naturally I mean “mature” in the sense of “grown up”, not in the oft-misused sense of “for adults only, wink wink”. This is a thoughtful film, one which has more time for examining issues of politicking than for bang-bang-a-boom fight scenes. Indeed, if you’ve come looking for an action movie — as, it seems, most critics did — then you’ll definitely be disappointed. If, however, you’re looking for a film to continue the series’ rich vein of sci-fi political allegory, well, you’re in luck. This edition: propaganda.

In the previous films, heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) inadvertently inspired a rebellion against the ruling Capitol, which has been bubbling away without her knowledge. Now, having been targeted by evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), she’s been transported to the underground locales of District 13, where they want to put her in films to continue spreading dissension among the other districts. At the same time, the Capitol are putting Katniss’ captured lover Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on the air, arguing for peace and maintaining the status quo. It’s a war of hearts and minds, essentially, as both sides attempt to rally ordinary people to their cause through the power of the media. It’s a tale that’s as timely as ever, surely.

One of my favourite elements here is the distrust that both sides engender. The rebels Katniss has found herself with are certainly the good guys, battling to overthrow an abusively oppressive regime, but they aren’t whiter-than-white — they won’t always do everything our hero would like; she’s not always sure she can trust them. There’s no doubt about which side is the right one to be on, but it’s at least a little more complex than the norm.

Katniss herself remains a refreshingly un-self-assured heroine. She doesn’t always know or do what’s right, she isn’t always sure of her purpose or her goals, or even her own feelings. That’s so much more human than so many movie heroes, no doubt in part thanks to having an Oscar-able actress to carry the role. True, we’ve seen these facets before from her in both of the previous films, but hurrah to author Suzanne Collins and to the filmmakers for not taking the simple route of having her transform into something she didn’t start as. There’s still a whole outstanding film to bring about such a change, of course, so we’ll just have to wait and see how they follow this through to the end.

The fact there will be another film is an undoubted point of contention. The Hunger Games is the latest to follow in Harry Potter’s footsteps and split the final book of a series in two when filmed. Indeed, since Twilight latched onto that bandwagon it’s become de rigueur, with the final-book-split usually announced as soon as the first film in a wannabe-series is a box office hit — see the Divergent series, for example (or The Maze Runner for one that supposedly won’t succumb to this). Despite the complaints from many other critics and viewers, I must say that (as someone who hasn’t read the book) it didn’t feel overly like the first half of something longer to me. Of course there’s a cliffhanger and stuff, but there was at the end of the last film as well. This is no worse than that. If anything, I felt Mockingjay Part 1 built to its ending more successfully — I was quite surprised when Catching Fire stopped, whereas here the ending felt like a natural stopping point. In fact, given the point some of the storylines reach, it’s difficult to imagine them feeling anything other than rushed if they’d been executed in half the time. Maybe the film is a little drawn out in places and some storylines could’ve been condensed (how many propaganda films do we need to see Katniss make, really?), but that’s a niggle about perhaps wanting a minor trim, not a complaint decrying the need for full-blown editorial intervention.

Whether or not this Part 1 stands alone will be cemented by the next film, I feel. If the focus on using Katniss as no more than a propaganda figurehead isn’t continued in Part 2 then, well, that’s the part of the story that this film is about. It doesn’t feel like it needs to be continued next time — that particular propaganda angle has been fully explored — and so I think this instalment will feel much more like a fully-fledged film in its own right if they just move on. I hope the final film give us new themes, new subplots, new arcs to follow; I hope it feels like Part 4 of 4, in the way this currently feels like Part 3 of 4, and doesn’t play as Part 3B of 3 and retroactively transform this into Part 3A.

If you like a lot of Hunger Games action from your Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay Part 1 will certainly be a disappointment. On the other hand, if you more enjoy the political satire side of the series, it may be your favourite instalment so far (and you wouldn’t be alone in that view). For me, Catching Fire is the best of the three because it crystallises both of those constituent elements; and if the first film was purely the action side (with a bit of the politics), then here we find its mirror image: purely politics (with a bit of action). Either way, perhaps the ultimate fate of all these films rests on how well the next, final part can bring all their action, themes, and plots to fruition.

4 out of 5

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is available on Netflix UK from today.

A Late Quartet (2012)

2014 #57
Yaron Zilberman | 106 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

A Late QuartetSet in the rarefied world of classical music performance, A Late Quartet charts the fallout among the members of a highly-acclaimed New York string quartet when their leader (Christopher Walken) announces his impending retirement.

A talented cast work wonders in this straightforward drama, layering emotion and plausibility over a sometimes heavy-handed screenplay. Particular praise is warranted for Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the group’s suddenly-ambitious second violin, and, in the key supporting role outside the quartet, Imogen Poots. Equally holding his own among the better-known names is Mark Ivanir, the quartet’s precise and entrenched first violin. As the fourth member, Catherine Keener is probably given short shrift, her personal relationships and backstory used to illuminate others rather than herself.

Some have criticised the narrative’s basic tenets, for it being quite the coincidence that a group who have been together for almost a quarter of a century should have such a tumultuous few weeks all of a sudden. I think that’s allowable: Walken’s diagnosis and proposed retirement sends shockwaves that bring long-standing issues and feelings to a head — that feels plausible to me. It remains a bit melodramatic at times… but then, isn’t that just artists for you?

Christopher WalkenWhere it does make a mistake is in divorcing Walken from the rest of the group for so much of the time. He ends up going to Parkinson’s groups and doing exercises as if this is some kind of “Issue of the Week” TV movie, while everyone else gets on with the plot. Some of the best bits belong to him though, like the story cribbed from a real musician’s autobiography.

Also worthy of note is Frederick Elmes’ beautiful photography, which is really crisp and warm (praise also for the Blu-ray authoring, I guess). Plus snow-blanketed winter New York always looks majestic.

A Late Quartet isn’t revolutionary or even exemplary in many respects, but as personal-relationships dramas go, the top-drawer performances give it appeal.

4 out of 5

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

2011 #4
Charlie Kaufman | 119 mins | TV (HD) | 15 / R

Synecdoche, New YorkDespite its unpronounceable title, Synecdoche, New York starts out like a relatively normal comedy/drama… but then weird touches begin to creep in. A house that’s on fire when a character buys it and continues to be on fire for the next several decades, for instance. No one in the film bats an eyelid. Then the really weird bit arrives; the bit you all probably know; what the film’s about (except, of course, not what it’s About), as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s theatre director begins to construct a life-size New York within a warehouse.

This film is written and, for the first time, directed by Charlie Kaufman. “Ah,” I hear you say, “that explains everything.”

And if it was anyone but Kaufman at the helm you’d say the film loses its way at the point Hoffman begins his impossible undertaking. And maybe it does anyway. It becomes a complex mishmash of reality and the play being staged; although you’re never in doubt about which is which (such a twist would be far too obvious), you are in doubt about why it’s all happening. The relatively congenial first hour (ish) is followable; the rest… bizarre, weird, inexplicable. I’m sure it all Means Something, but I can well imagine as many viewers getting thoroughly fed up as finding it revelatory. I don’t think one opinion would be inherently superior to the other.

At times it almost reclaims itself from this descent into impenetrability, almost edging toward finding a revelation that will explain what we’ve seen. And I’m sure there is an explanation of some kind. But, by the time it reached its end, I’m not sure I really cared any more; Fiction meets realityand I haven’t begun to care in the months since I watched it. It’s the kind of film where, as it gets on, you feel it’s a rich experience that you’ll have to ponder for a bit once it’s done, even if there’s something you quite fancy watching on the same channel immediately afterwards. But by the end it became the kind of film I was fed up with pondering, and I bloody well watched what was on the same channel immediately afterwards. Kaufman’s weirdness can wear you down to the point where characters who were interesting and ideas (both plausible and of Kaufman-logic) that had potential cease to be worth caring about; where you go from the point of “I’ll look up an explanation on the internet once it’s finished” to “…meh”.

That could be just me of course. Roger Ebert asserted it was the best film of the 2000s. Maybe you’ll agree. Maybe you’ll find it inspiring or life-affirming or goodness knows what else. Maybe you’ll be so bored you’ll give up even before the end. But, having made it to the end, I’m torn between not being sure what to think, thinking I should make the effort to understand it, and still just not caring.

Right at the end of that Ebert article, way past the bit on Synecdoche, he says this:

The set of a set

Almost the first day I started writing reviews, I found a sentence in a book by Robert Warshow that I pinned on the wall above my desk… it helps me stay grounded. It says:

A man goes to the movies. A critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.

That doesn’t make one person right and another wrong. All it means is that you know how they really felt, not how they thought they should feel.

This quote isn’t inherently more relevant to this particular review than it is to any other particular review, but I feel the need to consider it and include it for your consideration also. That said, it is relevant in this respect: it’s already provoked more reflection on my part than Synecdoche did. I think I’ll discuss it further another time.

3 out of 5

Synecdoche, New York is on BBC Two tonight, Friday 17th April 2015, at 12:40am (so, technically Saturday 18th).

Almost Famous (2000)

2008 #41
Cameron Crowe | 118 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Almost FamousSometimes I find I have quite a lot to say about a film when it comes to writing my review for this blog — recently, witness Cloverfield, Transformers, or Indiana Jones 4 (of course, using Indy 4’s full title more than once guarantees a long review). Other times it’s a struggle to come up with anything at all — try the relatively brief comments on The Fountain, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Field of Dreams. Almost Famous falls into the latter camp. Not because it’s no good, or because it’s middle-of-the-road, but because there’s nothing I’m dying to praise or slate about it.

Everything about it is solidly done. Patrick Fugit is an engaging and relatable lead, ably supported in the acting stakes by a good ensemble, especially Philip Seymour Hoffman (unsurprisingly) and fellow top-billers Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand and Kate Hudson. And there’s Zooey Deschanel, who doesn’t have many scenes, but, y’know, still…

Crowe’s autobiographical screenplay is a good one, with plenty of amusing and dramatic moments to keep it ticking over — the most memorable, on a crashing plane, manages both with aplomb. Likewise, his direction is rarely flashy but always works. The music, costumes, design and cinematography evoke the period well (to me, at least, who didn’t live anywhere near the ’70s). There’s probably some life lessons in here — it’s a coming-of-age film after all (as well as a rock & roll road movie, of course) — but they’re not over-laboured.

In short, I really liked Almost Famous. It’s the sort of film that might creep in at the lower end of a (relatively long) list of favourites, not because there’s anything exemplary about it, but because the cumulative effect makes for an enjoyable experience.

4 out of 5

Almost Famous is on Movie Mix (aka more>movies) tonight, Sunday 31st May 2015, at 1:15am.

Capote (2005)

2007 #61
Bennett Miller | 110 mins | DVD | 15 / R

CapoteIt is, unsurprisingly, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning lead performance that dominates this movie. While the title might suggest a biopic, the film actually concentrates on the five year period in which Truman Capote researched and wrote his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood.

While this process forms the structure of the plot, the title gives away what the movie is actually ‘about’ — in and around the mechanics of the murder investigation and Capote’s work process, it’s the character of the man, and how it’s affected, that is really revealed to the viewer (in a subtler way than my blatant highlighting of it here would suggest).

4 out of 5

The ‘other’ Truman Capote movie from the mid-noughties, Infamous, is on BBC Two tonight, Friday 5th June 2015, at 11:50pm.